A Cuban painter who dreamed about and planned his departure for 15 years now uses the Midwest as his new canvas.
He could have chosen the home of Caribbean exile in the sunny city of Miami, Florida. But he did not like that little Havana of the first world, perhaps because of the proximity of that stormy sea which he saw swallow not only many of his dreams and hopes for 40 years, but friends and acquaintances who tried to cross the 90 miles between the oppressive yoke of the Castro brothers and the land of opportunity.
José Antonio Pantoja, an artist who is 41, considers himself a sort of Cuban Crocodile Dundee who defected from a communist dictatorship, exchanging hunger, oppression, poverty and abuse for just one thing: freedom.
Left behind is the anguish and frustration of wanting to but not being able to, and the torment of living isolated from the world.
And like the vast majority of immigrants who arrive with nothing, except for their talent, today there is much that he enjoys: walking freely, spending hours in the supermarket trying to decide between an endless selection of milk and eggs, enjoying the Internet without fear of being punished and imprisoned, opening the bathroom faucet and know that there is water, enjoying a new dish called pizza, partying with friends who only speak English, driving without difficulties. All of this because his future arrived in June 2011, when he requested political asylum while in the city of Querétaro in Mexico, where he had been invited to an art exhibition that never existed.
“It was like being born again,” recalls the painter, interviewed in his home and studio in the Brady district just north of downtown Tulsa. “The dreams of freedom were no longer just in those old black and white films I used to see in Cuba. It was reality, and in full color.”
Pantoja tells his story almost breathlessly and gesturing with his hands while looking over some of his sketches. “There is so much to talk about that a book could be written, but everything can be summarized in one word: freedom! My thirst for freedom, my frustration with the reality of Cuba – that is what brought me here.”
From Cuba to Tulsa
The artist often mentions a topic that he finds remarkable: supermarkets. “There is so much abundance,” he said. “I still find it hard to go; it is not easy to adapt, given that 40 years without freedom can traumatize anyone. After living in a little box for 40 years, this is starting to live, but at a speed of a million miles per hour. “
Pantoja said Cubans are under strict food rationing. This is determined by a “supply book,” set up in March 1962 and by which products such as meat – in this case chicken and soy – are limited to 230 grams per month. “It’s the same with eggs and even soap. Everything is controlled. That’s why going to a market here is unimaginable, a fantasy.”
The misery in the country is extreme, Pantoja said. “It’s a form of repression. That and education, when you limit those two things, you have control.” With an average annual salary of $229, it is “impossible to live.”
Pantoja said that he is neither a revolutionary nor a dissident, nor is he a nationalist and much less a Yankee. He is a painter who with his brushes fought the oppression of a regime for 40 years.
He began developing his idea of leaving the island – and technically to become a deserter – when he was very young, he said. “There are paintings where you can appreciate my desire, my search for liberty.”
In fact one of the works in which Pantoja is currently working on in Tulsa depicts a huge cup tied to a monumental balloon, and inside there is a sort of Noah’s ark. “In our minds we still must consider all possibilities, and everything in Cuba is so difficult that one has to think more.”
Pantoja belongs to an elite group of Cuban painters who managed to convince the government to establish a space for artistic expression; it was called the Culture Project, a kind of open-air gallery along the Havana seawall. Of course, this small window of emancipation was achieved through many years of being patient with the humiliations of the regime, including two years of strikes.
Pantoja said that dealing with and taking part in the National Council of Plastic Arts was like living with “a dream-killing machine,” but being there allowed him to further develop his plan to leave because he had Internet access in an office. “Of course, I was watched, very carefully watched,” he explains. “They are watching every key you press.”
That’s how Pantoja turned the frustration of having to hide his works and avoid the pressure of the regime to change his painting’s themes; it was all in an effort to move ahead. His fame on the island turned him into a person beloved by the people and hated by the communist party leaders. “Yet I had very powerful government customers who bought my paintings to make fun of Fidel (Castro) in their homes, behind closed doors.”
Pantoja’s perseverance enabled him to avoid hundreds of bureaucratic hurdles and counter many negatives so that he could obtain approval for a trip to an art exhibition at the Museum of Querétaro, Mexico. “Finally I was able to get the invitation,” he said. After he obtained the “blessed letter,” Pantoja gambled on his future. “I had to either leave the island or end up living in a dungeon. Fortunately, I was able to get out. “
Exile has not been easy. Pantoja, as do other immigrants, opened a wound that is difficult to heal, especially because of what is left behind and because of the uncertainty of the unknown. “It’s hard, very hard,” he said. “But at the same time freedom helps you, it supports you and gives you strength.”
Painting in Oklahoma
“My works give voice to the people of Cuba,” says Pantoja. “There are very few people who can speak out. And fewer who do speak and survive.”
Painting in Tulsa is something he loves. “First, because I have the freedom to do so, and second because it is something new for the other people, who see a world of which they know nothing.”
Pantoja said that through his work “I paint the errors of the revolution.” But he expects the work to be useful for “those who with so much power, can rectify and change, although in truth I doubt they will do so; unfortunately, they only know how to cut the wings of freedom.”
He said his paintings are still sad. “There is no other way; I am traumatized. I have to reflect what I feel,” he said. “It’s a process of liberation and those wounds are still open: I still sense the smell of the sea.”
Pantoja said he will continue painting. “And now that I am out of Cuba, even more so,” he said. “It’s very difficult to create when they kill your dreams, when they crush your ideas. But in freedom you create forever.”
The artist will exhibit some of his work in Tulsa in June, adding photographs and visual objects that will allow the audience to better understand his art.
The painter and his memories of Cuba
“The smell of the sea. One does not forget that.”
“My people. They travel with my paintings.”
“The light of dawn.”
“Cuba got stuck in time and Bejucal [his hometown] cannot even find an hourglass.”
Photo by Juan Miret